I'm Looking Through You
Jennifer Finney Boylan has already written about her experience as a transsexual in the best-selling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (2002), a book that recounts the story of a forty-year-old man, married with two sons, who finally embraces his true identity and begins the process that leads to gender-reassignment surgery and a new life as a woman. So while this new memoir, I’m Looking Through You, does not cover that ground (giving the basic information with real dispatch at several points), it nevertheless cannot help focusing on the issue of Boylan’s gender identity, though it does so by placing this in the much more universal context of a coming-of-age tale. The declaration emblazoned on Jimmy Boylan’s high school T-shirt, “I act different because I am different,” could be the motto for all teenagers rebelling against parents and conventions as they struggle to come to terms with who they are and what that means for their future lives. Adolescence is turbulent, brutal, and comical, not just for boys who feel trapped in the wrong body, but for everyone, to some degree or another. Boylan’s confusions and fears, however, are more specific; and it is this specificity that gives the book its uniquely haunted quality. Aware of his particular difference, young Boylan knows that “in order to survive, I’d have to become something of a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden.” It means haunting his own body, being “a wraithlike presence otherwise invisible to the naked eyelike helium, or J. D. Salinger, or the G-spot.” In those few early sentences readers are introduced both to the memoir’s principal metaphors (ghosts and hauntings) as well as to Boylan’s principal tone: a voice that can turn on a dime from the serious to the comic. She is dead earnest about her haunted past; but as a fifty-year-old woman looking back on that time, she is also able to see and re-create the genuine comedy in it all.
A word about this act of looking back on the past: In a prefatory “Author’s Note,” Boylan makes it quite clear that her story, like all memoirs, is an impression, not a photographic record, and so it will “contain elements of invention, in keeping with the facts of my life.” She will dramatize events, supply dialogue, and expand time frames in telling her story. Perhaps this is no more than a reminder that memories are personal and emotional constructs: They invite embellishment, insist on dilation or contraction, are powerful in their instability and suggestiveness, difficult to verify, and rarely shared exactly by others (when a friend at a thirtieth high school reunion, for instance, says that something Boylan wrote about never happened, she responds: “just because it never happened doesn’t mean I can’t remember it”). So long as she does not “shamelessly bamboozle the reader,” Boylan believes that she is on safe ground in terms of presenting the truth. However, some readers may feel that proviso gives her a little too much leeway for creative elaboration. Before many pages have gone by, the reader confronts a family living in a crumbling haunted house: an affable father who asks his son to play piano pieces backward; a kimono-clad grandmother who dances atop barroom tables dispensing wisdom about the value of eating dirt; a visionary uncle who rides the rails scrawling utopian manifestos; an aunt with foot-long fingernails; a cousin who eats only plums; a dog, Matt the Mutt, that urinates on cue in fireplaces; and a friend who channels the Cowardly Lion. Then there is the narrator herself, who is electrocuted within the first few minutes of arriving at the family’s “Coffin” House, who sees ghosts and hovering blue mists everywhere, who travels on trains that run over young girls, who sleeps in bat-ridden bell towers, and who wakes to play Rolling Stones songs on the college carillon. It all seems a little over the top, everything boosted into capital letters and day-glo colorsa sort of “can-you-believe-this?” hyperbole designed to rivet readers and boost sales.
Should the reader question any of this? Should the reader believe that a toilet left running overnight could actually flood three floors of a house, knocking down walls, taking out ceilings, and floating grand pianos? Should the reader simply understand that little Jimmy’s mistake creates a mess for his family: an external image that makes concrete his internal condition? Is it just the nature of contemporary memoir to trade in this species of exuberant exaggeration?...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)